Friday, January 27, 2012

The Real College Recruiting Action is among Assistant Coaches

This time of year the sports sites like Rivals focus breathlessly upon the commitment wars among schools for elite student athletes. You can follow the preferences and visits of athletes and live through their waffling and changes and commitments. But to my mind, these seasons have become as much about recruiting and changes among assistant coaches at the college level. The influx of conference money, the increasing sophistication of playbooks as well as the need to get top recruiters has meant that assistant college coaching football salaries have risen faster than the head coaches in recent years.

My Washington Huskies provide an interesting but common case study. Steve Sarkesian, the dynamic young Head Coach of Washington, had held together his 9 coaches for three seasons, almost unheard of in the modern world of college coaching. Suddenly inside of two  months, the Husky’s wide receiver coach Demetrice  Martin left to join Jim Mora’s new staff at UCLA. After the high scoring Alamo Bowl screamer, Sarkesian fired the defensive coordinator, the defensive line coach and the defensive backs coach. Suddenly a stable coaching staff missed four important assistants. Then Doug Nussmeier, the Husky’s highly respected offensive coordinator left to join Nick Saban’s national champion Alabama team.

Now the team was reduced during the height of recruiting season to four coaches, and the stability shattered. This has become the norm in college athletics and the Husky’s response illustrates the speed of movement and the ripple effect.

Sarkesian acted decisively. First, he hired a new Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox from Tenessee for 750,000 dollars per year for a three year contract. Peter Sirman followed Wilcox from Tenessee for 225,000 and two years as linebacker coach. Both are successful, aggressive and good recruiters who are returning to their northwest home areas.
Sarkesian then raided California and persuaded Eric Kiseau to be offensive coordinators for 375,000 and Tosh Lupoi as Defensive line coach for 350,000. Both have very strong recruiting reputations on the west coast as well as great skill sets. Lastly Keith Heyward moved north from Oregon State University to be defensive backs coach for $150,000.
In addition Sarkesian reconfigured the positions, titles and salaries of the remaining coaches. For instance Dan Cozzetto, their formidable and widely respected offensive line coach became “run-game coordinator” and Jimmy Dougherty, the wide receiver’s coach added the title “pass-game coordinator.”

Now California must find two coaches, Oregon State one and Tennessee two which in turn will ripple out and impact other schools.

Several aspect of the Husky whirlwind illustrate the new world of Assistant College Coaching. First, all the coaches left for more money, often significant. Sometimes this is added to a chance to to return to home town turf. Second, all involved increases in responsibility and expansion of skill. Third, being a successful recruiter has become almost as important as technical expertise. Fourth, assistant coaches often start out working for very little either as graduate assistants or at lower level schools, but at elite schools they now command not just better salaries but multi-year contracts. This softens the brutal uncertainty of their jobs.

Coaching is a profession, not an obsession. Fans forget this and often feel jilted when a head or assistant coach bolts for another job. Of course fans forget that if a coach falters the fans will turn on the coach and call for his or her head.
Every college coach is a paid professional in a very insecure and unstable profession.  By their early thirties most of them have been fired or cleaned out with a coaching change or seen it happen to their good friends. They have had to scramble to find a new job and move family and kids to another town on the spur of the moment. A professional coach knows the fickleness of fans and the tenuousness of any job.

A good assistant will try to maximize their income given the uncertainty surrounding their jobs. So the moves from California to Washington make perfect sense for the California coaches. The Tennessee coaches make comparable salaries but get more responsibility and also a chance to return closer to home, a rare opportunity for coaches. The move to multi-year contracts is a huge boon to the younger coaches and their families.

But coaching also has a career path. Many aspire to be head coaches or coordinators. This means a progression: They succeed where they are; they take on more responsibility there or move to another school to get more responsibility; they often look to move to a higher ranked school in terms of talent and visibility.

Doug Nussmeier, a wonderful coach and person, exhibits the pattern. He served as offensive co-ordinator and QB coach at Fresno State. He moved to same position at a much better school in a higher ranked conference, Washington. I believe he is ready to be a head coach right now, but he reasonably took the job of offensive coordinator under one of the game’s great coaches, Lou Saban, at the national championship team. He will be a head coach soon and exemplify the classic career progression.

Sakesian’s restructuring of responsibilities for his remaining coaches also fits the career path. He permitted internal staff growth where coaches can acquire higher levels of training and responsibility at the same school. All are preparing for more responsibility at better places.

A good and ambitious assistant coach then seeks good money and stable employment. But stability is rare, so the money must go up to compensate. In addition, they want to grow in responsibility and expertise. Often they will look to work with particular coaches who have created coaching trees and know how to train and groom coaches for better position as Tedford at California and Saban at Alabama does. I believe Sarkesian is growing into the same type of teacher coach.

Today while the news hounds focus on the kids, some of the most critical recruiting and hiring occurs among assistant coaches. Keep your eyes open.

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